Classical Music

Mercury Overcomes Challenges Of Harvey And Starts New Season

A mini-profile and season preview of the nationally-acclaimed Houston orchestra, plus how they’ve been affected by the recent hurricane

Montreal-raised Houston musician, Antoine Plante, traces his love of music to growing up in a home where music was, literally, everywhere:

“In the first story of our house, we have a collection of over 150 instruments. We have flutes, crumhorns, harps, violins and all sorts of percussion instruments… My dad started collecting these when he was young, and so I really grew up in this world of the rediscovery of music – beautiful music that was composed a long time ago – but also in the world of musical entrepreneurship. My dad was a director of this [early-music] ensemble, and this whole entrepreneurship aspect of being an artist was something that I grew up with as well.”

Fast forward years later, Antoine Plante started his own ensemble Mercury, along with friends and fellow musicians from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. Formed in 2000, Mercury is now a nationally-acclaimed period-instruments orchestra that seeks to redefine the orchestral experience.

Meet Artistic Director Antoine Plante in the sound portrait above, as he shares fun facts about himself and Mercury.

Then read on below, as he describes Mercury’s 2017-2018 season and how they’ve been challenged – and inspired – in the aftermath of Harvey.

 

How did you and your fellow musicians of Mercury fare during Harvey? I hope everyone was OK.

We fared pretty well for the most part. A few of our musicians’ and board members’ homes flooded. Some also had difficult moments trying to get in a safe place, as did many fellow Houstonians. Everybody is now safe and trying to get life back to normal.

 

You had to cancel your originally-scheduled September 2 Miller Outdoor Theater concert because of the storm. What have you been able to reschedule, and what have you decided to do instead?  

Our Miller Outdoor Theater concert is now Sunday, September 17 at 7:30pm. We are happy that we were able to reschedule this annual free community concert, something we have done for some time and a great way to reach so many people with music. We have changed the program to celebrate Houston’s strength and “can do” spirit and are now presenting a multimedia concert full of favorites from Vivaldi, Handel and Bach. The concert is a fun way to celebrate Houston together. That Sunday, September 17 concert – which I want to emphasize is a free community concert – will also serve to help the Mayor’s Harvey Relief Fund.  Donations will be accepted from anyone wishing to make one there. 

The program will also be performed at University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Bayou Theater on Thursday, September 14 at 8pm as part of its Performing Arts Series to benefit the UHCL Student Storm Relief Fund.

 

How has Mercury been involved with using music as means to help the community heal and recover in the days since Harvey?

Right after the big storm, we decided to get our instruments and go to the George R. Brown Convention Center, one of the major locations where thousands of Houstonians were being sheltered after Harvey. We performed, and were happy and grateful to be able to do our small part in healing and community service.

 

In your opinion, what is the role of art after a disaster?

The arts play an important role after a disaster like Harvey. They help us to keep hope, to feel solidarity and to bring beauty into difficult days.

 

What other concerts have you had to reschedule?

We’ve been fortunate that it is not too many so far. The Cullen Theater of the Wortham Center suffered a fair amount of damage. As a result, we will not be able to perform our first season concert there. But we have found another great venue and did not have to change the date or cancel. So, our October 7 concert, with symphonies by Brahms and Mendelssohn, will be performed at Stude Concert Hall at Rice University.

 

Besides scheduling, how has Harvey affected you and Mercury as artists? Will it influence the spirit of your season?

Harvey has affected everyone in Houston in different ways, and similar ways. It’s hard to say right now as to the overall effect for our season – we are in the process of getting everything back to normal. If the Wortham does not reopen soon, it will be a challenge for us. Traditionally, September is a big month for subscription campaign sales and fundraising for us. We have to wait and see how things work out – one day at a time. What is most important is helping each other as Houstonians, and remembering all the positive things – it could have been a lot worse for Houston and the surrounding areas. As challenging as things are, we are all grateful to be getting on with things. The musicians and I are eager to go back to work and do our part in making this place great again. I’m optimistic that we will come back stronger and better.

 

How would you describe your season in three words?

Dynamic, Moving, Grand 

 

If you had to describe your season as a menu, what foods would be on it?

Our season covers most people’s favorite parts of a meal – dessert and the main courses!

The desserts are light and filled with favorites, such as Bach & MendelssohnHaydn & Mozart, the Christmas Concerts and Splendors of Italian Baroque. They are mostly sweet, and you always want more – so perhaps like crème brûlée and French macaroons: airy, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth delicious!

We have two types of main courses – something a bit spicy, offering multimedia experiences with dancers, costumes and projections, such as the concerts Loving Clara Schumann and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Think of a really good fusion of Indian Vindaloo/Texas Chili!  New, hot, and innovative!  Then there are meatier entrees of greater sustenance – the masterpieces of the repertoire, such as Brahms’s Second Symphony, Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and the St. Matthew Passion by Bach. Definitely a succulent ribeye with scalloped potatoes and crème of spinach! Rich and deep, memorable meals!

 

How does this season “top” last season? Are you challenging yourself or trying anything new?

We always strive to offer an exciting, diverse range of concerts – with moving works, and pieces that are well known and some not as well known – and multimedia explorations as well. This season, we also have really exceptional soloists.  James Dunham, who was a member of the Grammy Award-winning Cleveland Quartet and a current violist of the Axelrod String Quartet; soprano Dominque LaBelle; mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle; countertenor Daniel Taylor; and Grammy-nominated recording artist Nicholas Phan are just a few – not to forget the Houston Boychoir and members of the Houston Symphony Chorus. 

 

In addition to your downtown concert series, you also present a neighborhood series in places like the MFAH and Dosey Doe, which is a converted barn and restaurant.  What do you enjoy about performing at non-traditional venues?

Music is about creating experiences for the public. Small, intimate and original venues offer special atmosphere that makes the performance moving. We really love these venues and intimate concerts. It feels like we are among friends. Each venue is unique in its own way, and each has its own personality, which lends itself to the music in very attractive ways.  And it is just so much fun – both for the musicians and the audiences.

 

In past seasons, you started creating multimedia programs. What motivated you to do that, and what multimedia programs will you present this season?

Wanting to create atmospheres that make you experience music deeply was the motivating factor for me. I love doing this! We mostly perform music that was composed many years ago, but our art is living. Classical music is about the experience of the public, about how the audience is touched and moved by it. Multimedia concerts are a great instrument for that. Mercury has been presenting concerts with dancers, set, projections and costumes for years, but we are stepping it up lately, producing two major multimedia productions this season.

Loving Clara Schumann is about the love experiences of Clara Schumann, a famous pianist, composer and character of the romantic period. She loved two of the most important figures of her time: Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Through songs written by the three of them, we tell the story and explore their emotions. Musicians are among dancers, supported by projections and a set. This should be a really special concert.

Mercury is closing the season with an all-time favorite, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons! But it’s not your typical Four Seasons. We are creating a new production, one where audience members will be transported to a world of fairies and magic. The music is paired with narration, set and projections. A new and beautiful way to hear the famous seasons!

 

Mercury specializes in period-instrument performance. What do you love about that sound?

Period instruments are raw and pure. Their sound goes straight to the heart. The technology is ancient but that music was written for them. It gives us a really unique perspective. It gives the audience an exceptional way to experience the music. We sacrifice homogeneity, technical ease. We risk more for effects and art, but when it works, there is nothing like it. The essence of the music is revealed. 

 

What would people be surprised to learn about Mercury?

It actually started in Japan! Concertmaster Jonathan Godfrey and I meet in the summer of 1997 in Sapporo, Japan. Both of us were members of an international orchestra gathering for a summer tour in Japan. We met again in Houston few years after and started Mercury.

 

Besides getting people to come to your concerts, what are your hopes for the 2017-18 season?

What matters most to us is making Houston a great place to live by making great art accessible and experienced by most. I hope for exceptional music making and deep relevance.

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Catherine Lu

Catherine Lu

Content Producer & Announcer

While growing up in Chicago and Houston, Catherine’s love for art, music and creative writing was influenced by her teachers and parents. She was once concertmaster of the Clear Lake High School Orchestra and a four-time violinist of the Texas All-State Symphony. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Catherine...

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